Skip Bayless’ Refutal of Stephen A’s ‘First Take’ Success Story Checks Out

“[Stephen A. Smith] has been more of a brother to me than my actual brother,” Skip Bayless said on his podcast this week. “But brothers do fight. We definitely have fought before and maybe we’re about to fight again.”

Bayless is responding to a story Smith recently told on JJ Redick’s podcast, in which Smith says Bayless begged him to join First Take in 2012.

Smith claims that Bayless came to him and said he had taken the show as far as he could and needed him to join because management was about to cancel the program.

“One month later [after I joined], we were No. 1,” Smith told Redick. “And [First Take] has been No. 1 ever since.”

Bayless’ version of the story, however, differs greatly. Bayless spent nearly 50 minutes refuting Smith’s recollection of the story.

“All I know for sure, at this point in time, is that Stephen A. Smith made some statements on JJ Redick’s podcast last week that flat-out blindsided me, that stung me to the core, that ultimately made me angry and made my wife Ernestine even angrier,” Bayless said.

Smith responded to Bayless’ comments on Thursday, saying he did not lie but that is how he remembers the story.

You can watch Bayless’ full telling of his relationship with Smith, including details on each of their salaries, below:

In short, Smith suggests he saved First Take and Bayless’ career by joining the show in 2012. Meanwhile, Bayless says the show was already No. 1 and rising before Smith joined. Bayless adds that Smith helped but that he would have been fine without him.

So we have a battle of who was more important to the growth of First Take. Forget about inflation, this is urgent.

Overall, Smith’s version of the tale does not check out. The story in the industry is that ESPN was, at one point, indifferent about keeping First Take on air but grew fond of the show’s ratings in 2011 when it pivoted to a debate-only format with Bayless and a rotation of commentators.

It’s also unclear what Smith means when he says First Take became “No. 1” with him on-air. No. 1 in what?

First Take has never been No. 1 in its time slot, as both cable news and sitcoms draw far more viewers. Similarly, First Take has never outdrawn PTI as the top show in sports.

So the only category the show is first in is sports shows from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. And as Bayless says, First Take only competed with SportsCenter at the time and was already leading before Smith arrived.

“How can you save and make a show that was already as big a billion-to-one success story as ESPN had ever seen?” Bayless goes on. “The ratings and revenue were [already] impossibly great when Stephen A. joined me in 2012. With Stephen A. as my partner, First Take would never touch the NFL Monday ratings that it hit in 2011.”

Smith is a bigger draw than Bayless right now. But at the time of the show’s rise, Smith was riding shotgun.

The idea of the show with Bayless and Smith together was to ask questions that would lead Bayless to give an outrageous “take” and then Smith would blow up at him like a cartoon character. The show was formatted around Bayless’ opinions.

So much so that the program struggled when Bayless left for FS1 in 2016. To combat the show’s lost viewership, ESPN moved First Take from ESPN2 to ESPN in 2017. First Take was down 30 percent early on after Bayless’ departure.

That is not to say Smith did not improve the show. Smith and Bayless had rare chemistry and were viral magnets together. From 2012 to Bayless’ exit from ESPN in 2016, the duo proved more valuable together than separate.

Bayless agrees. He says he told former ESPN EVP Jamie Horowitz he wanted Smith full-time because a) he had more chemistry with Smith than the rotation of commentators, and b), he wanted to help Smith get back to prominence at ESPN.

Smith had returned to ESPN around 2011 to do local coverage in New York, for which Bayless said he was overqualified.

“But in the end, you gotta trust me on this, there was a big part of me that wanted to throw my brother Stephen A. a little bit of a lifeline,” Bayless explains. “I wanted to get him back in the door in Bristol. No more local radio and website. He belonged in Bristol.

Bayless adds despite all of this, Smith remains his friend and maybe one day they will work together again. I’d bet against the latter.

Bayless had a chance to return to ESPN in 2020 and do a program with Smith on ESPN+ and eventually move to linear television, likely at the expense of Bayless’ First Take replacement, Max Kellerman.

Ultimately, Bayless chose to re-sign with Fox Sports for (what he said at the 40:00 mark) four years and $32 million total.

And even if Bayless forgives Smith, it’s rather clear neither one of these two can bring themselves to risk the perception of playing Robin.

Nothing stings a television talent more than someone thinking they are not the primary reason for a show’s success. Is that not clear?

So who won: Bayless or Smith? Who has the clutch gene? Who crumbled when it mattered most? Who is LeBron James and who is Michael Jordan?

Written by Bobby Burack

Bobby Burack covers media, politics, and sports at OutKick.

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